Australia Wants To Join The Snooper's Club: Why That's Bad For All Of Us
from the everybody's-doin'-it dept
They say that a lie is halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on, and the same seems to be true about Internet policy: the bad ideas spread like wildfire, while the good ones languish in obscurity. Snooping on the Net activity of an entire population is the latest example: now Australia wants to join the club that currently consists of the US and UK, with Canada waiting in the wings. Here’s part of the EFF’s excellent summary of what the Australian government is proposing:
Last week, Australian Attorney General Nicola Roxon submitted to Parliament a package of proposals intended to advance a National Security Inquiry in an effort to expand governmental surveillance powers. In a 60-page discussion paper, Roxon calls for making it easier for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to spy on Twitter and Facebook users, which would likely be achieved by compelling companies to create backdoors to enable surveillance. The proposals also revive a controversial data retention regime. And an especially problematic proposal would go so far as to establish a new crime: failure to assist law enforcement in the decryption of communications.
That last part is clearly modeled on a similar provision requiring encryption keys to be handed to the police on demand found in the UK’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. Surprisingly, that was passed back in 2000, but it is only now that most people are waking up to the ridiculous nature of its measures. As Rick Falkvinge explained in a recent post:
You’re not going to be sent to jail for refusal to give up encryption keys. You’re going to be sent to jail for an inability to unlock something that the police think is encrypted. Yes, this is where the hairs rise on our arms: if you have a recorded file with radio noise from the local telescope that you use for generation of random numbers, and the police asks you to produce the decryption key to show them the three documents inside the encrypted container that your radio noise looks like, you will be sent to jail for up to five years for your inability to produce the imagined documents.
In that same column, Falkvinge makes a crucial point:
The next step, of course, is that the citizens protect themselves from snooping — at which point some bureaucrat will confuse the government’s ability to snoop on citizen’s lives for a right to snoop on citizen’s lives at any time, and create harsh punishments for any citizens who try to keep a shred of their privacy.
This is precisely what is happening in the countries that are bringing in blanket surveillance of their entire populations: just because this is now becoming technically possible, so the argument goes, we must implement such schemes because otherwise terrorists and pedophiles will take advantage of technology in ways that will make their discovery and arrest harder.
But just because something can be done, doesn’t mean that it should. Exactly the same argument could be made about installing CCTV in everyone’s home: with the falling cost of cameras, and the availability of the Internet, that’s now a realistic option. It would also ensure that those same terrorists and pedophiles couldn’t use advanced technology like curtains to thwart the forces of law and order.
And yet nobody would seriously suggest bringing in such a scheme, because it is recognized as a step too far, and that there are other ways of catching criminals without recourse to such extreme measures — using traditional police and intelligence techniques that aren’t dependent on deploying technology, but build on basic human skills and professional experience. So why is it suddenly acceptable to bring in the digital equivalent of CCTVs that record our every online move?
One reason is probably because governments can point to each others’ plans to show that “everyone” is doing it, which means it is “obviously” a reasonable thing to do. That makes the latest announcement of snooping plans bad not just for Australians, but for everyone else too, since it bolsters the argument that total Net surveillance is the new normal.